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Pride is back as U.S. earns ticket to China

It isn't the Americans' most exciting victory, but the 135-91 semifinal win over Puerto Rico guarantees them a berth in the Olympics.

September 02, 2007|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS -- They're b-a-c-k.

Like all the other U.S. team's games, its semifinal in the Tournament of the Americas was semi-easy. Looking as inevitable as the sunrise, even in a sub-par performance, the Americans ran off Puerto Rico, 135-91, Saturday to qualify for next year's Olympics in Beijing.

"We're ecstatic to qualify for the Olympics," Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "I know a lot of people think it's a done deal, but it's not a done deal until you do it. . . . You could not have a more proud team than this U.S. team to be going to represent their country."

Oh, by the way, Saturday's win also put the U.S. in today's ceremonial final against Argentina, which secured the other Olympic berth, coming from 11 points behind in the third quarter to beat rival Brazil, 91-80.

Argentina upended the U.S. en route to its 2004 Olympic gold medal, but unlike the upgraded American team the Argentines qualified here with one starter from their team in Athens -- Houston Rocket-bound forward Luis Scola, who scored 27 points.

Manu Ginobili and the rest of the starters didn't come out but were spared the three weeks it would have taken to train and try to become one of the three teams to qualify next summer.

Said Detroit Pistons personnel director Tony Ronzoni, a member of the U.S. staff: "Their people told me if they qualify, they'll be heroes in their country."

In this country, of course, the players are regarded as so heroic, international basketball is a non-starter as an entertainment vehicle. With tickets scaled to marquee heights, a crowd of 7,257 watched Saturday in 18,500-seat Thomas & Mack Arena.

Not that everyone else missed one of the Americans' awesome performances. Nine games and 11 days into this event, even this hardworking team looked as if it was running low on motivation.

If payback was mentioned, Puerto Rico having started the U.S. problems in Athens with a 92-73 opening-night rout, the U.S. just beat Puerto Rico by 39 points four days ago.

Looking as if the Americans had, indeed, had enough revenge, they let Puerto Rico score on seven of its first nine possessions to stay within 33-27 in the first quarter as former USC sharpshooter Larry Ayuso went for 11 points on Kobe Bryant.

The other Puerto Rico guard, Carlos Arroyo, a member of the Orlando Magic who shines in international play as he rarely does in the NBA, scored eight more in the first quarter, zipping past Jason Kidd as if he was nailed to the floor.

Happily for the U.S., Puerto Rico Coach Manolo Cintron didn't play either of his starting guards in the second quarter, making it even easier for the Americans' depth to assert itself.

The U.S., which isn't supposed to be able to shoot, made 23 three-pointers in 36 attempts. Six were by Carmelo Anthony, who led all scorers with 27.

And now for the big finale?

"In the big scheme of things, it doesn't mean much," Krzyzewski said of today's game. "We're going to go out and play hard and try to play as well as all the other games."

By the look of things to this point, that should do it.

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mark.heisler@latimes.com

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